Lhivera’s Library

Adventures in World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, the real world, and beyond

Atheists in Azeroth

Saturday, January 19 2013 at 1:16pm CST

There was a quick discussion on Twitter today about the question of whether or not it's reasonable to roleplay an atheist in World of Warcraft. The general thinking goes: magic is real, and we have tons of eyewitness testimony of the existence of beings such as C'Thun and Yogg-Saron, so it's not reasonable to roleplay a character who just outright denies the existence of these beings.

I disagree.

First, let me quickly dismiss the question of magic. Magic is irrelevant to theism in (many) fantasy settings. Unless the world has been explicitly written to define magic as being provided in some way by that world's deities, which to the best of my knowledge is not the case in World of Warcraft, there are various nontheistic explanations for the existance and use of magic.

Now as to the beings themselves, the matter really boils down to an objective definition of what is and is not a god. And the simple fact is that there isn't one. Even if there is one in the world "bible" — by which I mean the writer's guidelines that set forth the rules of the world to ensure internal consistency — that definition by no means needs to be accepted by characters within the world. This is the biggest problem for theism (and the basis of one of the most very basic forms of atheism) in the real world: if you can't define deity in such a way that we can even agree on what we're talking about, let alone devise logical and experimental tests to determine whether something meets the definition, then there's no sense wasting time talking about it.

Lhivera met C'Thun, and she helped kill him. As a character, she's detached, cold (no pun intended), and logical, thoughtful, skeptical, slow to anger and reluctant to kill unnecessarily, but ruthless when she deems it necessary. It's perfectly within her nature to kill C'Thun and start thinking along these lines:

  • Nothing he did while we fought him seemed beyond the realm of understanding. The difference between his abilities and mine is a difference of degree, not of kind.
  • My own power continues to grow. Were I as old as C'Thun, I might well be as powerful and might well possess similar knowledge.
  • I am not a god. Becoming more powerful would not change my nature; I would still not be a god.
  • Was C'Thun truly a god? Or was he just a very old and powerful but completely natural being?

And it seems to me that, given her personality, she would be inclined toward the latter answer.

In Azeroth, unlike the real world, the question is not "do these beings exist," as they clearly do. The question is rather, "do I really consider these beings to be gods?" In the real world, if a being appeared in public, claimed to be a god, and worked what appeared to be miracles, the first question we should be asking is not, "how many times shall I kiss your feet, O Glorious One," but rather, "how is he or she doing that, and is there a way to stop it?" It would require truly extraordinary evidence backed by an awful lot of science before it would be reasonable to conclude that the person was what he or she claimed to be, rather than a confidence artist with extraordinary abilities and/or technology. There would be many people who would fall down on their knees without question, but there would also be some who would be more inclined to say, "give us enough time and the right resources, and we can figure out how to do those things."

Azeroth is no different. One character will look at the corpse of C'Thun and see the remains of a god; another will quietly roll her eyes at the description and see the remains of a very old, very powerful, but very natural and mortal foe.


Submitted by Arakkoa on

Hey, I'm one of the participants of this discussion.

I think we disagree on a rather fundamental level. I call myself agnostic, and in deeper explanation, I don't believe in any of the gods I know of, and I know a ton of them, but I'm open for a possibility of a being that to the best of our knowledge would be described as a god. Things like Q from Star Trek are very much god-like to me, and I would not hesitate to use that definition for Q had I met him in real life. But that provokes a much deeper question. What is a god?

My personal definition of a god is rather simple: a being of immense power, that is worshipped. His kind of power doesn't have to be unattainable, but being very hard to attain is enough. If the magnitude is so much above an average mortal that peasants would gawk in awe at the mysterious power from beyond the world, and start praising that creature, that is a god to me.

Now, the characters in-universe (I'm speaking of any random fantasy universe now, nothing specific) can disagree on that definition. But the problem arises: what else is a god if not a god? As in, what alternate descriptor or category do those characters have for a being as powerful as C'Thun, Pelor or Zeus? If the world was created by those gods, everything will stem from them, including terminology. Pelor can come up and say "you were created by us; that is gods". Then the characters can dispute that classification, but what else would Pelor be to those people? They do not have an alternative other than "just a very, very powerful dude". And in their view point, "very, very powerful dude" might be enough to classify as a god.

Now, Azeroth isn't your average fantasy world. We know the world was most likely not created by the creatures called gods. Their power can be overcame with enough dedication and strength. Earth human observing Azeroth from outside, or being transported inside, has every qualification to doubt the divinity of those creatures. But do Azerothians?

My general point is, while "god" is usually meant to invoke fear and awe, it can be a very clinical classification, meant to simply describe a being of a certain magnitude of power. If it is, than the matter of "is it a god or not" becomes a matter of simply experiencing them.

I can only regret that World of Warcraft doesn't stride into such deep questions usually. The most we'd get out of the actual game would be a boss screaming "I AM A GOD OF X, FEAR ME!" and then us going bonkers on his backside. In a deeper setting, it would be a very interesting question to explore, involving the gods in question themselves, and all the different people with their own definitions of "god".

Submitted by Lhivera on

Touching quickly on "agnostic" — most athiests are also agnostic; agnosticism isn't a "middle ground" between theism and atheism. Everyone is both either a theist or an atheist, and either a gnostic or an agnostic. Theist/atheist is a dichotomy on the theological question: if you can answer "yes" to the question, "do you believe at least one deity exists?" then you're a theist. If you can't, you're an athiest; it doesn't matter if you can't answer yes because you were raised by wolves and have no idea what the word means, or because you've actively rejected every deity that's been propsed to you.

Gnostic/agnostic is an epistomological dichotomy: do you believe it's possible to know whether or not at least one deity exists? Most atheists take the position that, no, it's not possible to know whether or not a deity exists (thus they're agnostic), but also that in the absence of that knowledge, it's not reasonable to assume that they do.

Gnostic atheists are very rare. Gnostic theists are probably somewhat more common, but I suspect most theists are also agnostic. Gnosticism isn't a very easy position to defend, I think.

As one of the quotes I cycle above says, by John McCarthy: an atheist doesn't have to be someone who thinks he has a proof that there can't be a god. He only has to be someone who thinks that the evidence on the god question is a similar level to the evidence on the werewolf question.

As for the question of whether or not Azerothians have the ability to question the divinity of the powerful creatures commonly called gods: why not? I assume they're as clever and inquisitive as we are. And I tend to think that meeting such creatures in the flesh — and thus punching holes in the veil of mystery surrounding them — is going to make it more likely, not less likely, for people to start asking such questions. We had skeptics on earth without the benefit of being able to spit on the actual flesh-and-blood corpse of their deities; if they could question, it seems certain to me that some Azerothians could do the same.